Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Edgar Allan Poe's Sound Symbolism

I have already heard Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" recited twice this Halloween season. This puts me in mind of Poe's decidedly un-romantic account of the poem's construction, The Philosophy of Composition, originally published in Graham's Magazine in April 1846. (The full text is reproduced here.)

The particular section that comes to my mind is Poe's claim that Nevermore is the most sonorous and most melancholy word he could think of, and therefore the most appropriate refrain for a sad poem.

Poe claims that he set out to write a poem with a repeated refrain. In order to make frequent repetition appropriate in a longer poem, though, Poe determined that he should select a single-word refrain.

The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was, of course, a corollary: the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word "Nevermore." In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.

Poe figured that no reasonable person would repeat a single word often enough to close each stanza.

Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

Subsequent literary scholars have expressed doubt that Poe actually followed such a rationally considered method of composition. But whether his explanation is accurate or merely post-hoc, his discussion of the effects of particular sounds reminds me of certain discussions of sound symbolism.

Poe doesn't mention sound symbolism per se or make any claims about the universal semantics of o. But his use of "sonorous" differs from the technical sense used in phonetics. Late International Phonetics Association president Peter Ladefoged defined sonority as "loudness relative to other sounds with the same length, stress, and pitch." By that defintion, a in father is more sonorous than or in nevermore.

Clearly Poe means something like Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary's third definition of sonorous: "imposing or impressive in effect or style". What is that effect? Poe doesn't say, but he likely had something phonosemantic or sound symbolic in mind.

For work specifically on sound symbolism, see:

Hinton, Leanne, Johanna Nichols and John J. Ohala (eds.). 1994. Sound Symbolism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hymes, Del. 1960. Phonological aspects of style: some English sonnets. In Thomas Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nuckolls, Janis. 1999. The case for sound symbolism. Annual Review of Anthropology 28: 225-52.

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